- Alisha Grech
No Capes: Captain Feminism, Intersectionality, and the Burning Building
In an interview with Aamna Mohdin from 2018, Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Washington University explained that Black femininity is a powerful performative choice: "in a society that has deemed Black women incapable of being vulnerable, warm, beautiful and graceful. The idea of Black women embracing aspects of their natural beauty very much is still a radical act."
I came across this quote and article through another: How To Be A Feminine Black Woman written by Grace in Sorella Magazine. Grace refers to the above interview with Adia Harvey Wingfield to situate the lack of freeing Black feminine expression she feels, within the context of gender performativity, racism, and stereotyping:
"The world has created so little room for Black women to express every facet of ourselves. We see the overrepresentation of Black female masculinity in the media and the underrepresentation of ourselves as dainty, vulnerable, soft, and beautiful. Embracing our femininity as Black women, collectively, is one way to bring light to another form of Black womanhood–the feminine Black woman. Likewise, being a feminine Black woman is fun and it challenges the strong Black woman stereotype which encourages Black women to take on too much and forget ourselves in the process."
When we think of femininity, who do we see? Who is it for? Who is feminine and who is not? Why?
In my last blog post, I ended off by asking what happens to those who do not fit into the category of "palatable" or patriarchal femininity. Those who do not conform become ostracised and further subjugated to instances of systemic violence and prejudice.
In tandem with these restrictions on feminine individuality and self-performativity, there exists an issue within the entity of feminism.
To me, these issues are two-fold.
Certain bodies are (for lack of a better word) disallowed from femininity because it is not the right femininity.
When failing to perform or exist as the right feminine, certain bodies fail to be protected by and represented by feminism.
Bear with me.
I've been on a binge of superhero movies lately, so this is the only way my mind can process things.
If the patriarchy is the "bad guy" that seeks to restrict female-identifying persons through violence and harms, and feminism is the "hero" of this story — why does it seem like our "hero" is picking and choosing which citizen to save from the hypothetical burning building and which to leave behind?
Batgirl, by Marco Fernando Torres Bermeo
Is feminism just as exclusive as femininity?
Our hero is biased. Exclusive. And very deeply flawed.
In Open Space: Beyond 'Talking' and 'Owning' Intersectionality, Lola Okolosie writes about her concerns with intersectionality. Intersectionality, if you need some brushing up on the terminology coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, places stress on the ways in which varying categories of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and class interact with each other to further marginalize groups of people. Basically, someone who is white, male, cis-gender, and wealthy will have an easier time in life than someone who is an Asian immigrant, female, and working class. That really should go without saying that this is disturbingly wrong and a fundamental issue.
Intersectionality in many ways has been fundamental to the feminist movement, attempting to shine a light on the ways in which women of colour face interlocking instances of oppression and marginalization. However, intersectionality is not a slogan meant for a t-shirt or an Instagram caption. It is something to be practiced, self-reflected, and discussed critically. Without this, we have empty words and a hero who doesn't really know what they are supposed to be doing.
In Lola Okolosie's article, the discourse of feminism is discussed with reference to social media activism, setting it up as a sort of chessboard between white feminists and black feminists. She points out that white feminists with a strong social media platform predominantly set the terms for discussion on intersectionality (Okolosie, 92). Which is super unbalanced.
She brings up the example of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen — in August of 2013, feminist blogger Mikki Kendall started the hashtag to discuss her frustration towards the remarks of Hugo Schwyzer: a blogger and gender studies professor who slept with former students and abused his position of power to silence women of colour. Mikki Kendall pointed to the resounding silence of feminist blogs such as Feministing and Jezebel, who failed to acknowledge his abusive behaviour. In an article for The Guardian, Mikki Kendall explained:
"When I launched the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, I thought it would largely be a discussion between people impacted by the latest bout of problematic behavior from mainstream white feminists. It was intended to be Twitter shorthand for how often feminists of colour are told that the racism they experience 'isn't a feminist issue.' The first few tweets reflect the deeply personal impact of such a long-running structural issue. As the hashtag spread across Twitter, people from all walks of life started joining in – to vent their own personal frustrations, as well as to address larger political issues. Feminism as a global movement meant to unite all women has global responsibilities, and – as illustrated by hundreds of tweets – has failed at one of the most basic: it has not been welcoming to all women or even their communities."
To Okolosie, this hashtag exemplifies the racial nature of debates surrounding intersectionality. Okolosie writes that: "the feminist movement’s failure to practice intersectionality becomes read, within the numerous blogposts that both precede and follow this successful hashtag, as a failure to meaningfully view the voices of black feminists as legitimate and not of the margins" (92).
So, feminism — our hero, our champion — hears the complaints and the cries of white citizens. While listening to and validating the pain of those experiences, pushes other citizens to the margins of the burning building where they possibly will get burned. To make matters worse for the citizens not rescued by feminism (because you know, you can only carry so many people) they are expected to save themselves — oh, and educate everyone after about the experience of saving themselves over and over.
On this constant labour, Okolosie argues that: "we find ourselves having to ‘teach’ intersectionality to those from the wider movement, a task that is both rewarding because we are engaging in an ‘open dialogue’ and emotionally demanding as it requires black feminists to ‘explain’ ourselves" (92).
Let's return to the superhero analogy again.
I'm a big fan of analogies, clearly. It helps my brain chug along.
Where were we?
Feminism is the hero: cape, boots, power of flight, super strength, you name it. The burning building is injustice. Inside are female-identifying citizens that are of a range of ethnicities, backgrounds, sexual orientations, etc. Our hero — Captain Feminism or whoever — goes to save the white, cis-gender citizens first because to Captain Feminism, their problems are the most recognizable. Even if the white, cis-gender citizens step aside and exclaim: "no, save the others first, they need more of the help" in the name of intersectionality, the problem still remains. Captain Feminism's first inclination was to protect the population they were branded and designed for, neglecting the needs of those pushed to the back.
As much as intersectionality is a word that can promote togetherness and create space, it is challenging. As Okolosie explains: "This is the difficult work of intersectionality that we need to commit to in our own spaces and invite others in the wider movement to collaborate with and on. Such a vision would problematize a simplistic discussion of intersectionality as something black feminists necessarily do by the very fact of our being. It may, in addition, create a forum for an open and frank dialogue about how so many of us are implicated in oppressive structures" (95).
With intersectionality in mind, I ask, who gets saved from that burning building first?
The white able-bodied citizen, who is already climbing down the fire escape?
Or, the person pinned down underneath the rubble, fighting with no one to hear her.
Okolosie, L. (2014). Open Space Beyond 'Talking' and 'Owning' Intersectionality. Feminist Review. 90-96
Kendall, M. (2013). #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: women of color's issue with digital feminism. The Guardian.
How To Be A Feminine Black Woman by Grace: https://sorellamag.org/how-to-be-a-feminine-black-woman/
For Black Women, Femininity and Feminism Are Not Mutually Exclusive by Aamna Mohdin: https://qz.com/quartzy/1158081/for-black-women-femininity-and-feminism-are-not-mutually-exclusive/